THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
March 20, 2002
PRESS BRIEFING BY ARI FLEISCHER
[excerpts on Homeland Security, Congressional oversight]
Q: Is the administration now looking for some middle ground on Ridge's briefings to members of Congress? Specifically, has the White House offered to have him -- if you don't want to use the word, testify, tell me what word you would use -- talk to members of the Senate behind closed doors?
MR. FLEISCHER: The administration will continue to make all its Cabinet members and others available to answer questions from the Congress on a regular basis. In fact, this is how much consultation this administration has done: The President, himself, has met with members of Congress on 124 separate occasions in separate meetings. Especially given the fact that Congress has been in session only 166 days since the President took office -- the President has met with Congress almost every day that Congress has been in session.
Governor Ridge, himself, has met with members of Congress 33 times in 33 separate types of meetings since he became a member of the President's staff on October the 8th, just a few months ago. And that doesn't even include all the meetings that Governor Ridge has attended with members of Congress down here at the White House alongside the President.
So Congress has had a lot of meetings with both the President, with Governor Ridge, and with other officials. And the administration will continue to provide that type of access. We have offered the Congress an opportunity for all 100 Senators to meet with Governor Ridge.
What the President feels very strongly about, that will not change, is Congress's attempt to compel testimony, in a dramatic break from a longstanding tradition that Congress has previously upheld vis-a-vis the Executive Branch. I think what you really have here is a classic executive/legislative struggle over information. While the information is flowing, and flowing freely, from the executive to the legislature, sometimes it's never enough for a legislature. I don't know how the President could have any more meetings with Congress.
Q: Well, their question in this particular instance isn't about the President. And they only started talking about compelling testimony when the White House refused to send him up. The question that members of both --
MR. FLEISCHER: He's been up many times.
Q: In briefings. Their question, both Republicans and Democrats, seems to be that he comes up and talks to them or talks to the caucuses, but that they don't have an opportunity to ask him questions in the detail that they want to. So this -- is this offer you're now making an effort to meet their --
MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, anybody who's attended those private caucuses, and the meetings in members' offices, knows that members of Congress don't sit there very long to hear speeches. They ask a lot of questions. And that's their prerogative, and that's what they should do.
And that's my point. Governor Ridge has answered all the questions that have been put to him, in multiple sessions, in multiple forums, and 33 different times in different meetings. The President has done the same thing. What Congress is asking for is to go beyond what they've historically and traditionally received, and that's the surprising development that Congress would push for something that they have never pushed for before -- particularly when they've been given so much access by the President and Governor Ridge.
Q: Well, what is it you're offering to do now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Governor Ridge was prepared to go up and meet with all 100 senators. The Senate leadership declined.
Q: Because he wanted to do it in private, and in secret? Is that why?
MR. FLEISCHER: He was offering to meet in a session outside of a committee's sworn testimony.
Q: So in other words -- explain to us what the difference is between testifying and going up and meeting with all 100 senators in closed session, I guess.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, testimony is reserved for Cabinet secretaries, for operational officers of the United States government to go up before the multitude of committees that Congress has, to explain their budgets, to explain their operational programs. That's what Cabinet secretaries' responsibility is, under the Constitution and under good government, to do for the Congress.
Presidential aides, presidential advisors, are in a different capacity and a different context. They talk to members of Congress all the time, often on the phone with members with Congress. But it is not their job to go up in sworn testimony, as it is the job of Cabinet officials. So the information is flowing, the information is flowing freely. It's just that Congress, as congresses do, always wants more.
Q: So he can go talk to them, but he just wouldn't be a sworn witness in the same way that a Cabinet secretary would?
MR. FLEISCHER: Testimony before a congressional committee is not the purview of the Homeland Security Advisor, the National Security Advisor, the Counsel to the President, the Chief of Staff to the President. They're White House staff. They traditionally have not been asked to go up and testify. This is a dramatic break with the way Congress usually does its business.
Q: So not sworn and not before a committee, is that it?
Q: Ari, to follow up on some of Jim's questions, where is the oversight over the expenditures of the Homeland Security Director?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, the Homeland Security Director does not have expenditures other than his immediate office here in the White House, just like any other aide to the President has funds to oversee his immediate staff. The people who have operational oversight and who have actual money in the billions to spend are the Attorney General, is FEMA, the government agencies that have the operational responsibility for homeland security. The Attorney General's office, the various border agencies, all those are the entities that are tied into homeland security. It's kind of like asking if Dr. Rice controls the defense budget. She doesn't, Defense does, and that's why Defense testifies on the Hill. Same thing with Governor Ridge.
Q: But Governor Ridge is building up quite a team, if you will, more than 100 people.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. I indicated -- the budget that he controls is his staff, and that's in excess, I think -- somewhat over 100 people, many of whom have been detailed to Homeland Security. Same structure set up as the National Security Advisor, who also has some more than 100 people, I believe -- or approximately 100 people on the staff of the NSA. There's really no structural difference.
Q: So you've seen no role for congressional oversight of what he does, all the many things he does?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there is congressional oversight, and that oversight extends to the areas of homeland security. And that's why the Attorney General is up testifying; that's why all the heads of the agencies are up testifying.
Q: I didn't ask about the Attorney General, I asked about Tom Ridge. No congressional oversight over him directly.
MR. FLEISCHER: The oversight over any presidential advisor who is not confirmed by the Senate is by the President of the United States. Now, it is Congress' right to ask questions and to get information, and that is provided. But it comes in a different form, and this will be ongoing.
But there is a major difference between an operational Cabinet officer who is confirmed by the Senate and has an obligation to go testify to the Senate or the House, and a presidential aide, an advisor who does not have operational control over any budgets except for their own staff budget. And in that case, Congress clearly has oversight over the budget of the White House itself. And that's exercised through the operations of the White House Executive Office of the President, who speaks for all the financial matters of the White House that are funded by the Congress.
Q: You refer to sworn testimony quite often.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said testimony, I didn't say sworn, because not all committees require you to be sworn. The point is the same, though, testifying before Congress. I didn't say sworn. Some committees swear you in, some committees don't. That's not the issue, it's testimony.
Q: But, Ari, you've all but indicated that he does have operational control for these budgets, because the White House is repeatedly said that it would follow Ridge's -- the President would basically follow Ridge's suggestions on spending for homeland security. So doesn't that give Ridge a unique obligation to go to the Hill and explain spending decisions, since the White House, itself, has emphasized that he has some de facto control over them?
MR. FLEISCHER: It gives him no different authority or no different advisory capacity than Dr. Rice does, who also talks about what the appropriate level of funding should be for the agencies that she advises the President on, State, DOD, CIA. Governor Ridge does play that advisory role for the President in helping these agencies to set the budgets. But he is not the operational person in charge of those budgets. As I indicated, there are many others who do, and those are the people who properly do testify up on Capitol Hill.
But make no mistake again, Governor Ridge is up on the Hill answering these questions often. This is only a matter of what exact setting, what exact room does Congress want Governor Ridge to answer the questions he's answering. He's answering the questions plenty; Congress just wants to put him in a different room to answer the same questions all over again.
Q: Well, the room that you want to put him in, with the 100 senators, would it be closed to the public or open?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't -- I think that's something we could figure out with the Congress.
Q: You wouldn't mind him talking to Congress in front of the press --
MR. FLEISCHER: No. The Governor's taking questions all the time from the press, and has events in different settings. So I don't know that that's a specific issue.
Q: What was the offer? Having him come before Congress, or 100 members of the Senate, in public or in private?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't -- it was to meet with all 100 senators, Ron. I don't have all the details about it. And it was declined, so -- I don't even have the details beyond that.
Q: -- the White House wouldn't have a problem with him talking to Congress or the 100 senators, in public?
MR. FLEISCHER: We are always willing to work out with the Congress various means of having Governor Ridge talk to them. But the President has drawn a strong line about testimony; that's not appropriate for somebody who is an advisor to the President.
Q: Ari, this afternoon, it turns out Governor Ridge does have some private meetings. Will he take the opportunity at that point to provide specific plans for providing coverage in lieu of taking the fighters down over New York City?
MR. FLEISCHER: You say he has some meetings?
Q: Yes, yes, he does. He has meetings today, I believe.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I think -- first of all, DOD is the agency that is in charge of any of these programs. So I think that is true, it has been addressed at length yesterday by DOD and myself. There's really nothing to be added on that topic.
Q: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.